Antiprostitution versus Sex Work Feminism
Western, especially American, feminists have a long history of being concerned about the issue of trafficking in white women (and children), particularly trafficking leading to sexual exploitation. The first wave of activism against “white slavery”—trafficking of women across borders for the purpose of prostitution— began around the turn of the twentieth century and resulted in several international agreements, including the International Agreement of 1904 for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic and the 1949 U. N. Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Although the latter was ratified by the USSR in 1953, convention supporters had trouble enlisting European countries to ratify the U. N. Convention (Ucarer 1999). As a result, this early activism succeeded in raising global attention to the issue but not in changing policy or practice.
The second wave of feminist activism in the 1970s and 1980s renewed feminist attention to the issue, but by the 1990s, when the Soviet collapse allowed dialogue between Russian and foreign feminists, the global feminist debate had become polarized. In practice, there are a variety of approaches to regulating, prohibiting, legalizing, abolishing, or criminalizing prostitution (see Outshoorn 2004, 8), but two views are constitutive both globally and especially in Russia. In one camp were transnational feminist networks (TFNs) such as the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, founded in 1993 and based in the U. S., which reject all prostitution as sex trafficking. Writing and speaking of “prostitution,” “sex trafficking,” and “sex slavery,” their “antiprostitution feminism” subsumes the problem of trafficking (and mail-order brides) under prostitution, criticizing both as “sexual exploitation” (Chapkis 2005). They believe that “[p]rostitution victimizes all women, justifies the sale of any woman, and reduces all women to sex.”1 To address the problem, they propose raising women’s status, “depenalizing the prostitutes, [and] penalizing the customer and anyone who promotes sexual exploitation, particularly pimps and procurers.” They advocate “rehabilitation” for the former prostitutes.
On the other side were TFNs such as the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women (GAATW), founded in 1994 and based in Thailand, who critique coerced prostitution while accepting what they see as voluntary sex work by adults. Speaking of “forced (reproductive or sexual) labor,” “human trafficking,” “trafficking in persons,” GAATW broadens the understanding of trafficking to including trafficking for other forced labor.2 Employing the term “sex work” instead of “prostitution,” this “sex work feminism” articulates that “prostitution should be regarded as work” and that “new domestic and international law was needed to both advance the labour (and other) rights of sex workers and to protect victims of forced labour (for example in the trafficking for the purposes of prostitution)” (Sullivan 2003). The focus here is not the behavior (prostitution), but the coercion, “human rights” rather than sexual exploitation. Sex-work feminists fear that criminalization may drive prostitution further underground, making it more dangerous for women, and that “rehabilitation” of individual sex workers may deprive women of the most lucrative job opportunities, driving them to employment in perhaps just as exploitative labor conditions with lower wages.
The different approaches represent long-standing and complex disagreements about women’s sex and sexuality and the best way to promote women’s agency. As they believe that sexual violence (and by extension prostitution and trafficking) is the central tool through which women are dominated, antiprostitution feminists maintain that women’s empowerment will come about only when all forms of sexual violence are eradicated. Sex-work feminists begin with some women’s assertion that sexuality (and sex work) is empowering and wish to extend that empowerment to other women by creating new, supportive social, political, and cultural conditions. The first approach gives voice to the exploited women by clarifying the incorrect assumption of consent in many contexts such as prostitution; the second reinforces women’s status as equal rights-bearing citizens by recognizing that women may give consent to sex or sex work. The former favors gendering the debate, focusing the discussion of trafficking on women (and children); the latter seeks to de-gender the debate so that women are not seen as particularly (or essentially) vulnerable.
Although there is no consensus on how to solve the problem, trafficking in women has long been part of the global feminist consensus on violence against women as a violation of women’s human rights. It was the only form of gender violence explicitly condemned in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (see appendix 1). The U. N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1994) defined “trafficking in women as forced prostitution,” one element of violence against women. The 1995 Beijing Platform established “effective suppression of trafficking in women and girls for the sex trade” as a “matter of pressing international concern” (para. 122). As part of the new alliance between global feminists and human rights advocates, the latter—including such giants as the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch—adopted the issue.